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Hundreds of Thousands of Failing Septic Systems Contribute to an Ongoing Major Public Health Issue in Michigan

By February 20, 2023News

Groundwater, and the Waters of our Fragile Lakes, Rivers, and Streams

are Subject to Contamination by Failing Residential Septic Systems

by Scott Brown

MWA E- Newsletter Editor

Attributed to the fact that Michigan continues to be the only state within the United States of America that has not yet enacted a state-wide law requiring regular septic system inspections, and to the fact that only eleven out of eighty three, or 13% of counties in Michigan have enacted local regulations that require regular septic system inspections, hundreds of thousands of failing septic systems continue to be a major source of e-coli and human fecal bacteria laden raw sewage that contaminates ground water, and renders the waters of many our lakes, rivers, and streams unfit for total contact water sports such as swimming or snorkeling. The steadily escalating environmental and public health associated problem is derived from that fact that approximately 20%, or 280,000, of the 1.4 million septic tanks that were constructed in the 1950’s and 1960’s throughout Michigan are now failing. The problem has also been exacerbated by the fact that many Michigan homes, and their now severely antiquated septic systems were built prior to the construction of sewer systems that now serve even the smallest of towns and villages.

Septic systems, otherwise known as on-site waste water disposal systems, are designed and installed in order to manage and treat the waste generated by toilets before it reaches ground water. In a properly designed septic system, the septic tank serves to remove larger solids from wastewater. Wastewater that flows out of the septic tank is saturated with contaminants that must be removed before the water can safely be combined with surface and/or groundwater. Public health issues stem from the fact that septic tank effluent contains large concentrations of toxic micro-organisms that are capable of making people sick. Moreover, the organic matter present in wastewater effluent creates bad odors, and contains algae growth stimulating nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) that can have a negative impact on aquatic ecosystems. Properly designed septic systems include a disposal field comprised of a mixture of sand, silt, and clay that are often referred to as loamy soils that act to successfully treat bacterial and inorganic compounds. Phosphorus that is produced within the household that passes through the septic tank is also captured within a properly designed disposal field’s soil.

On-site waste water disposal systems continue to be installed in support of residential and commercial development that occurs in rural settings where sanitary sewer systems are not available. According to Michigan State University Extension, when an on-site waste water disposal system is correctly located, properly designed, carefully installed, and properly maintained, they are capable of serving as effective waste disposal systems that are economical and that do not pose a threat to public health or to the fragile ecosystems of surrounding streams, rivers, and lakes.


Michigan’s on-going failing septic system crisis is best exemplified by Kent County where a volunteer only septic system inspection program allows an estimated 11, 250 failing residential septic systems distributed throughout the county to leak approximately one million gallons of raw sewage into vulnerable groundwater supplies each day. In inland lake inundated Oakland County, as another prime example, where public health threatening cases of e-coli contamination of rivers and lakes are reported on a more and more frequent basis, and where county officials have also yet to establish a program that would mandate regular septic system inspections, approximately twenty-five to thirty percent of the 100,000 septic systems located in Michigan’s most affluent county are known to be leaking. The gravity of the situation is also effectively illustrated by the fact that the results of a 2015 study conducted by Michigan State University researchers on sixty-four Michigan rivers revealed that concentrations of e-coli that were higher than U. S. Environmental Protection Agency permitted water quality standards. The significance of the issue is also amplified by the fact that the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lake, and Energy (EGLE) reports that approximately one half of Michigan’s thousands of miles of rivers and streams suffer from concentrations of toxic e-coli that exceed minimum water quality standards. 


Representing a major environmental and public health issue that promises to escalate in significance as increasing numbers of septic systems fail and begin to leak with the passage of time, past efforts to enact legislation that would have established a meaningful statewide standard for how septic tanks are designed, built, inspected, and maintained have sadly disintegrated in the face of arguments suggesting that in addition to treading on individual property rights, regulating septic tanks in a manner that would require regular inspections and maintenance would be too costly for homeowners, over burden local health departments, and make it more difficult to sell homes.


It is important to note, however, that Michigan Governor Whitmer recognized the significance of the on-going problem and declared the week of September 20-24, 2021 as Septic Smart Week that encouraged homeowners and communities to properly maintain their increasingly vulnerable septic systems. In addition, Governor Whitmer and Senator Jon Bumstead proposed dedicating $35 million of the 2022 state budget to enable the establishment and funding of an EGLE administered program that would make low interest loans available to homeowners seeking to repair, replace, or eliminate leaking residential septic systems.

The latest attempt at passing legislation that would require septic tank inspections was introduced as House Bill 6101 on May 17, 2022 by Representatives Yaroch and Rendon, and was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation. Known as the “septic tank inspection at time of sale act”, due to an upcoming election, and perceived wide spread opposition to the legislation, neither the Michigan House of Representative or the Michigan Senate took any sort of action on the bill. Only time will tell if Governor Whitmer and the leadership of both houses of the Michigan legislature will pursue a viable solution to an on-going environmental crisis by enacting a state law requiring property owners to inspect and maintain their septic systems on a regular basis. 

For more information on how failing septic systems are capable of degrading our precious freshwater resources, visit the U. S. EPA’s web page entitled “How Your Septic System Can Impact Nearby Water Sources” . The always wise, inland lakes preservation focused folks from northwest Lower Michigan’s Glen Lake Association have also created a septic smart webpage that contains valuable information regarding the proper maintenance of septic systems.